Underage Drinking Harmful to Developing Bodies
When Wendy G. noticed changes in her 14-year-old daughter’s behavior, she chalked it up to the pressures of starting high school and teenage hormones. But after her once enthusiastic, high-achieving child experienced ongoing depression, mood swings and a drop in grades, she became concerned.
After smelling alcohol on her daughter’s breath and confronting her, the truth came out: she had been drinking alcohol at her friend’s house that was supplied by the parents.
“I was in complete shock. I knew and respected these parents and assumed my daughter was being adequately supervised. I am fighting to get my daughter’s life back on track now.”
The Surgeon General’s 2007 “Call to Action” indicates that alcohol, an addictive drug, is the drug of choice of most teens and our nation’s greatest drug problem. “We can’t ignore what alcohol is doing to our children,” stated U.S. Surgeon General Rear Admiral Kenneth Moritsugu, M.D.
Alcohol is the greatest drug problem for teens nationally and locally. A 2009 poll of students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools found that a third of high-school students said they had drunk alcohol in the last 30 days, while 33 percent of middle-schoolers said they had tried alcohol.
According to the Charlotte Mecklenburg Youth Drug Survey, of kids who drink the average starting age is 12.7 years. This is consistent with the national average. The study also revealed that the easiest place to get alcohol is at home.
Responsibility Begins with Parents
Shelley Friedman and Alice McGinley are Community Organizers for the Charlotte Mecklenburg Drug Free Coalition, whose mission is to reduce the harmful impacts of alcohol and other drug abuse on youth, families and the community. Friedman says some parents believe that kids are going to drink anyway and feel it is better if they let them drink under their supervision in their home.
“Many parents feel that drinking is a rite of passage for our teens. Some parents believe it is safe to provide alcohol in the home if they take away everyone’s car keys and provide what they consider to be a safe environment,” she says. This foolish assumption not only breaks the law, it can have devastating, long-term effects on teens.
Because many parents drank recreationally as teenagers and feel they turned out okay, they may take the matter lightly. However, says Friedman, the effects of underage drinking reach far beyond adolescence, noting that there is more knowledge about underage drinking today than 20 or 30 years ago.
“We know that kids do not drink like adults, they binge drink, hence all the harmful effects,” she says. “Binge drinking puts teens at risk for alcohol poisoning and even death.”
Harmful Effects in Transition Years
The effects of alcohol abuse on still-developing teen bodies is staggering. Medical research concludes that, because of continuing development, the body is not biologically ready for alcohol consumption until about age 25.
Exposing the brain to alcohol at an earlier age can interrupt important processes in brain development, possibly leading to long-lasting effects on intellectual capabilities and a loss of up to 10% of brain power. Permanent damage to other vital organs (including heart, liver, lungs, pancreas and circulatory system) and to DNA can occur as well.
“Teen alcohol abuse can cause an increased risk of heart disease, malnutrition due to an inability to absorb food properly from the gut, liver disease, clinical depression, numbness and tingling in the hands and feet and certain forms of cancer,” says Dr. Sheila Kilbane, a pediatrician at Touchstone Health Associates in Cornelius.
The ability to make correct or safe decisions is also at a stage of immaturity during the teen years. Alcohol use exacerbates teens’ lack of reason and logic and puts them at risk for motor vehicle accidents, suicides and homicides as well as sexual activity, physical and sexual assault and unwanted pregnancies.
Kilbane adds that there may be serious social ramifications from underage drinking, too. “It can strain relationships with parents, friends, and boyfriends/girlfriends. Teens may be kicked off of sports teams, grades may suffer, college opportunities can be ruined. Ultimately, it may harm their chances of becoming the healthy, successful adults they truly would like to become.”
Advertising Makes Drinking Appealing
Unfortunately, alcohol advertisements make drinking very appealing to youth. The American Academy of Pediatrics found that alcohol advertising influences children to make bad choices about alcohol use, yet a call for restraint has been unheeded by the industry. A Georgetown University study found that kids age 12-19 rank ads for Bud Light as their favorites. However, the alcohol industry denies targeting youth even though more than 12% of Americans age 18 to 20 are addicted to alcohol, the highest rate of any group.
Alcopops, the alcoholic drink of choice for underage teens, especially girls, are deceptively appealing. These fruit-flavored, malt-based drinks come in colorful, child-oriented packaging. More girls than boys report drinking alcohol and at higher amounts and the American Medical Association points to the popularity of Alcopops as a major force behind the change in female consumption. The sweetness and flavoring hides the taste of alcohol and many believe they are not as strong as other forms of alcohol. A 12 ounce Alcopop, a twelve ounce beer, a cocktail with 1.5 ounces of spirits and a 5 ounce glass of wine have the same amount of alcohol (from 5-7%) and cause the same effects.
Another popular product posing risk to kids is alcohol energy drinks which contain a higher percentage of alcohol than the standard drink and are sold in soda-like cans and bottles. Because alcohol is a depressant and caffeine is a stimulant, the mix of substances can confuse the nervous system. Rather than feeling tired after drinking the caffeine causes a high, masking the feeling of intoxication. The result is wide-awake drunks.
Early Intervention Is Key
With so many alcoholic beverages available, the chances for establishing an addiction early on are great. Kids who begin drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence at some time in their lives compared with those who have their first drink at age 20 or older.Â For each year that the start of drinking is delayed, the risk of later alcohol dependence is reduced by 14 percent. Therefore, the need for early intervention to prevent and treat underage drinking is imperative.
No matter how wonderful we think our children our, the fact is they are children and may succumb to peer pressure and experimentation. Studies have shown that talking to kids early about the use of alcohol and drugs and making sure that they know you feel it is unacceptable and dangerous behavior works. Communication should be ongoing and stress the importance of responsible decision making. Youth often take their cues from the adults in their life. Being a healthy role model is an effective way to reinforce your expectations of them.
If you suspect that your underage child is experimenting with or abusing alcohol do not panic. Talk to your child lovingly and let him/her know why you are concerned. If things do not change, talking to a substance abuse professional is recommended.
The No. 1 source of alcohol for underage drinkers is family members and friends. But a child can’t drink if they can’t get to alcohol. Locking up alcohol and adequate parental supervision are key in deterring alcohol use in youth. Friedman believes as a community we must work together to reduce underage drinking and keep our kids safe.
“Please, talk to your teens, set a good example, monitor and/or lock up your alcohol and then talk to your teens some more. When they go to a friend’s house it is okay to ask if there will be a parent present and if there will be alcohol.”
Local Resources for Charlotte, NC:
The Charlotte Mecklenburg Drug Free Coalition
704 375-3784 Ext 24
Anuvia Prevention and Recovery Center
Dilworth Center for Chemical Dependency
Substance Abuse Prevention Services